The Seven Deadly Sins of Student Writers

The seven deadly sins.

1. Dangling modifiers. “Being the most spectacular event in the nation, newspapers were obligated to devote major coverage to the hurricane.” “By reversing the color scheme, the eye is captured.” “Claiming to be a simple man leading an ordinary life of a male as he enjoys watching football with his buddy’s, Smith’s lifestyle is far from ordinary.”  . . .

2. Omitted commas. As the popularity of the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation suggests, punctuation problems are endemic and, perhaps, epidemic. However, in my experience they are clustered in a few areas. One is the omission of a comma after an appositive or a parenthetical phrase. “All residents of Wilmington, Del. were issued paper bags in which to place their leaves”; “Prof. Jackson, who joined the faculty in 1978 is on sabbatical this year.” My students usually leave out the comma after “Del.” and “1978.” Almost as common is neglecting the comma before an adverbial phrase, as in “The football team won yesterday ending a five-game losing streak” . . .

3. Gratuitous commas. Let me count the ways. . . “Approximately, fifteen percent of the class are minority group members.” “Smith described the concert as, ‘a blast.'” “He shares a house with three, senior, pre-med students.” “Class president, Joe Rockwell, presented the award.” . . .

4. Semicolons. I’ve learned to pretty much count on it: Virtually any time a student uses a semicolon, the use is wrong.

5. Use of the word “they.”

6. Spell-check errors.

7. Wrong word. “Of the many things the students aspired [expected] to see, a terrorist attack was not one of them.”

“The drop in candidates can be accredited [attributed] to. … ”

“Stories about the hurricane invade [dominate] the entire first section of the newspaper.”

Ben Yagoda is a professor of English at the University of Delaware and author, most recently, of When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse, to be published in February by Broadway Books.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 53, Issue 3, Page B13

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